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Dimensions of language in schools

Many educators will be familiar with the saying that ‘all teachers are language teachers’ and few would argue that language doesn’t play a crucial role in education. However, on a daily basis teachers and school leaders must navigate a complex web of often competing priorities in relation to various dimensions of language in education. In the context of England, these relate to:

  • the English language, both as a curriculum subject and medium of instruction – this also involves paying particular attention to students who speak English as an additional language (EAL) who currently constitute 17.5 per cent of students in state-funded secondary schools (DfE, 2022)
  • sustaining the teaching of modern languages in the curriculum (Collen, 2022)
  • considering the role of other community or heritage languages.

Yet, from our experience of working in and alongside secondary schools we were aware that where explicit policies related to language exist, they often focus on just one of the above dimensions in isolation. This has the potential to lead to a lack of coherence within schools which could, in turn, cause confusion for both teachers (in making day-to-day decisions about pedagogy) and students (in developing their own conceptualisation of languages and linguistic agency). To find out more we embarked on a research project (funded by the British Academy) which aimed to map and systematically analyse language-related policies across secondary schools in England.

The (lack of) prevalence of explicit language policies in schools

To begin, we searched the websites of 998 secondary schools (a representative sample of 20 per cent of secondary-level schools across the country) for any documents or relevant webpages which related to language(s). The final dataset consisted of 1,457 separate policy documents. We found that references to language(s) were typically dispersed across a wide range of policy types, the most common being: special educational needs policies (26 per cent of schools), equality and inclusion policies (23 per cent), curriculum policies (20 per cent), EAL policies (15.5 per cent), and literacy policies (11 per cent). One thing which struck us at this point was the relative absence of explicit policies related to language overall and, in particular, we were surprised at how few schools had dedicated EAL policies (given the growing number of EAL students). Another notable finding was that only six of the schools (0.6 per cent) had any form of dedicated whole-school language policy. In fact, we found more dog policies than whole-school language policies!

‘One thing which struck us was the relative absence of explicit policies related to language overall and, in particular, we were surprised at how few schools had dedicated EAL [English as an additional language] policies.’

Tensions in policies related to language

Where references to language were made they tended to be heavily compartmentalised, sometimes contradictory, and often did not reflect the multilingual reality of schools. One of the most common contradictions seemed to stem from the tension between a desire to promote an ethos of multilingualism and the pressure to maintain high standards in English (which often led to the active suppression of multilingual practices) – for instance, statements such as ‘all languages, dialects, accents and cultures are valued; however, we aim to teach standard English’ (see also Cushing, 2020). Another key contradiction we found related to policies around the teaching of modern languages; while language learning was often framed as a provision ‘for all’ (in line with being a statutory part of the national curriculum between the ages of 7–14), this did not necessarily equate to being an entitlement for all. This was evidenced by explicit policies to ‘disapply’ students from language learning found across 117 schools in the sample, in favour of providing additional support for ‘life skills’, ‘literacy’ or, in some cases, simply where students found languages to be ‘a challenge’. Given the growing body of evidence which suggests that learning other languages can actually improve literacy skills and meta-linguistic awareness in the first language (see for example Forbes, 2020; Murphy et al., 2015), such disapplication policies are concerning.

Towards a more cohesive and holistic whole-school language policy

In spite of the tensions raised above, we found a number of encouraging points of intersection between the various language dimensions within policy documents, for example in drawing attention to the role that other languages (either taught or learned at home) can play in improving skills in English. While these statements did not typically come with specific pedagogical strategies to support such connection-making, they provide a useful starting point for thinking about how schools could develop a more cohesive and holistic whole-school language(s) policy. Our next step is to build further on this initial evidence base with a view to creating a research-informed toolkit for schools. The overall aim is to encourage more joined-up thinking between the currently quite disparate dimensions of language in schools which may, in turn, support students’ language development and learning across the curriculum.


Collen, I. (2022). Language trends 2022: Language teaching in primary and secondary schools in England.

Cushing, I. (2020). The policy and policing of language in schools. Language in Society, 49(3), 425–450.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2022). Schools, pupils and their characteristics 2021/22.

Forbes, K. (2020). Cross-linguistic transfer of writing strategies: Interactions between foreign language and first language classrooms. Multilingual Matters.

Murphy, V., Macaro, E., Alba, S., & Cipolla, C. (2015). The influence of learning a second language in primary school on developing first language literacy skills. Applied Psycholinguistics, 37(5), 1133–1153.